The COP26 climate summit in Glasgow revealed how limited we are in our thinking about solutions to the climate emergency. Much of the discussion has centered on countries committing to reduce their carbon emissions, but less emphasis has been placed on how this might be achieved. Many world leaders seem to believe that technological innovation and green growth will solve the problem. But this is a mistaken assumption.
Infinite growth on a finite planet is nonsense. Even “green” growth relies on the continued extraction of natural resources – and is fundamentally at odds with the idea of environmental sustainability. While some economists believe that we can “decouple” growth from our dependence on extraction, real world data does not confirm this. In fact, what we are seeing are ever increasing amounts of material being extracted from the Earth even as our society has adopted supposedly more environmentally friendly policies.
The climate crisis does not call for continued growth. He calls decrease.
What does that mean exactly? Well, different people mean slightly different things when they say “decay”. But what most definitions have in common is a recognition of the limits of our planet, and a corresponding slowdown in the extraction of resources, and therefore also in certain areas of production and consumption. Unlike a recession, the decline is intentional and planned.
For obvious reasons, many might find the word scary. Does degrowth mean that our quality of life has to drop considerably? Would it force us to abandon a market economy that cherishes competition in favor of some sort of government-controlled dystopian future? Isn’t that a naïve and radical idea doomed to failure?
The answer to all of these questions is no. Decrease does not mean a drop in the quality of life. While this would mean a drop in the production of the most polluting products in regions of the world where consumption levels are too high, the most drastic effects would only be felt by the wealthiest people, as these are the people who are wealthier people whose consumption is disproportionate contributes to environmental degradation. It’s also important to keep in mind that consuming more doesn’t necessarily mean a better quality of life. Indeed, consuming too much can be very detrimental to human well-being.
The goal of degrowth is not necessarily to reduce the size of our economy, but to reduce our dependence on environmentally unsustainable extraction and production processes. Different sectors of the economy have different environmental impacts, and it is the most polluting sectors that must degrade, not necessarily the economy as a whole. A carbon tax, for example, can lead to degrowth if it helps reduce the most carbon-intensive sectors of our economy while stimulating economic activity in areas that are less dependent on continued extraction, such as industries. care such as education and health.
So isn’t degrowth just another word for decarbonization, something our political leaders have already embraced? There is an important distinction between the two. Those who call for decarbonization have a very narrow goal of reducing carbon emissions, and don’t necessarily care about the collateral damage this could cause to the environment. Other ongoing environmental crises, such as biodiversity loss, are not only caused by climate change, but by a myriad of other impacts of human activity. The way we do decarbonization could actually exacerbate some of these other crises. Advocates of degrowth emphasize the need to fundamentally rethink what we see as a healthy economy. Decarbonization, as discussed by world leaders, has become a largely technical issue, while degrowth calls for more fundamental political and cultural change.
Degrowth has not yet gained the ground it deserves in the debate on the climate emergency and other environmental crises. This is perhaps not surprising in a world obsessed with continuous growth. In order for the idea of degrowth to become more central in our society’s response to the environmental crisis, we must rethink our relationship with our planet. Seeing ourselves as stewards, rather than masters, of nature and recognizing the right of future generations to live on a living, non-dying planet will help us achieve this. Our political leaders will recognize the common sense of degrowth only when deviating from the dogma of infinite growth no longer means political suicide for them. Let’s help them get there.
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